Modest 1% gain in D.C. public school enrollment reverses history of losses

The Post editorial board's Jo-Ann Armao speaks with Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. Public School system, about the future of her position, her greatest regret and accomplishment and what she thinks of her portrayal as a "superwoman" in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." (October 4, 2010)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 8:29 PM

While it is more symbolic than statistically significant, District officials Tuesday hailed the reported 1 percent gain in public school enrollment this fall as a critical measure of growing confidence in a school system that has spent the past four decades shedding students.

"This is in large part due to the fact that people are feeling more faith and confidence in our individual schools," said D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who joined Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to report the uptick - the first in 39 years, they said - at a chilly early morning press conference on the steps of Powell Elementary in Petworth.

Officials offered few details about the rise, which represents a gain of about 450 students over the 45,691 the District reported a year ago this month. Most of the growth is at the preschool and pre-kindergarten levels, where the city has added about 400 seats in the past year. Rhee said the system also retained an increased number of fifth-graders. A school-by-school breakdown of the data was not provided.

Rhee said 73 of the system's 123 schools across all eight wards showed enrollment gains. At least a couple of schools at the secondary level grew: Hardy Middle School in Ward 2 and Coolidge High School in Ward 4.

The District, which had 146,000 public school students in 1960, has steadily lost population as families decamped for the suburbs, enrolled in private schools or joined the city's burgeoning public charter school sector. Charters now educate 38 percent (27,953) of the city's public school population. Officials said 2010 charter enrollment figures may be available Wednesday.

The factors underlying the increase - which must be verified by state auditors - are not clear. One variable is whether the school system is actually capturing a higher proportion of school-age children, or benefiting from population increases along with the additional space it has created in early childhood programs.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which works on enrollment projections for the city, said the answer will be in new census data coming soon.

"It's really good news that it's not going down. You can't take that away from them," Filardo said. "The question is, is it not going down because the child population is growing and you expanded early childhood [programs] or because a greater share of families are choosing DCPS and staying. We just don't know."

There also is the question of whether the economic conditions have forced more families into public schools. Rhee said that with so many charter school options in the city, the increase reflects new confidence in D.C. schools.

"If money was the only factor and the quality of DCPS was not improving, you'd see those people moving to charter schools," she said.

Asked whether parents should continue to place their confidence in the system, even if she does not continue as chancellor under presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray - as is widely expected - Rhee said absolutely.

"There is no one in this city that wants to go backwards," she said. "Certainly in order to continue the reforms it will take continued courage and the willingness to make tough decisions. I absolutely think it's possible."

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